By Douglas Love, Chairman, California History Board
What if I told you that there was a California State Historic Park that you cannot visit? What if I told you that this park is located in one of the most populated areas of the state? What if I told you that this park has stories of native burials, humanitarianism, a lost son, and cold blooded murder? You would probably think that I have had one to many cocktails during social hour, but such a place exists and it is Marsh Creek State Park in Brentwood.
John Marsh was born in 1799 in South Danvers, Massachusetts. After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, he attended and eventually graduated from Harvard. He then studied medicine with a doctor in Boston. Soon, Marsh moved west, first settling in the Michigan Territory, and started the first school in what is now Minnesota. He became an Indian agent at Fort Snelling for the Sioux, took a French/Native mistress, by the name of Marguerite Decouteaux, who bore him a son, Charles, and was appointed Justice of the Peace by the Territorial Governor, Lewis Cass. He continued his medical studies under a Dr. Purcell at Fort Snelling but did not complete them as his mentor passed away.
Eventually, Marsh settled in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and became involved in the Black Hawk War. Blamed for a Sioux massacre of the Fox and Sauk, Marsh was forced to flee to New Salem, Illinois, with his mistress and son. He returned to Prairie du Chien, and left his family behind. Marguerite attempted to walk to Prairie du Chien while pregnant and died. Marsh then left his young son in the care of a family in New Salem. Marsh resumed his job as an Indian Agent and was discovered to have illegally sold firearms to some Indians. He had to flee the territory once more, tried his hand at being a merchant in Independence, Missouri, and reached Southern California via the Santa Fe Trail in 1836.
Marsh was granted permission by the Mexican authorities to practice medicine and began his practice as a doctor. He quite often charged very high fees since he was the only doctor in the area who had recent, modern, medical training. Marsh is credited as being the first doctor to practice medicine in California. He was paid in hides and tallow and eventually sold his accumulated goods to a Boston merchant for five hundred dollars. With the proceeds of the sale, he purchased Rancho Los Meganos from Jose Noriega near what is now Brentwood in 1837. Marsh became a rancher as well as a doctor and did very well.
In 1841, Marsh invited members of the Bartleson-Bidwell Party to be his guests and after several disagreements; John Bidwell left the Marsh Ranch. Marsh began to encourage emigration to California, in part out of distrust of the Mexican government. He is credited with being the with writing the 1845 letter, “Call To Foreigners” and he worked to bring California into the Union with Thomas O. Larkin. He participated in the Battle of Cahuenga Pass, trying to convince the Americans on both sides to not fight against each other. The end result was that Michael Micheltorena, the last Mexican Governor of California surrendered and was sent packing to Mexico.
After the end of the Mexican American War, John began a search for his son, Charles. This search proved fruitless and in 1851, Marsh was introduced to Abigail Smith Tuck whom he married two weeks later. She soon bore him a daughter, Abigail Francis. He began building a stone house to replace original adobe on his ranch. The house was completed in 1855, soon after the death of his wife. He moved into the house three weeks before his own death.
On September 24, 1856, Marsh was travelling from is ranch to Martinez for an appointment. On the road near Pacheco, he was accosted by three vaqueros about disputed wages. He was robbed and murdered. His body was found in a ditch by the side of the road after his driverless carriage arrived in Martinez.
The Marsh Creek State Park incorporates a large portion of Dr. Marsh’s ranch near Brentwood. The remains of his stone house and other structures on the property are being stabilized. There are ongoing archaeological excavations on the site. Just recently, over 500 skeletons were unearthed on the property and the remains all date from 4,300 to 2,950 years ago and eight of them appear to be buried with ancestral skulls. The park remains closed to the public, but the John Marsh Trust holds several public events a year. For further information please visit: http://johnmarshhouse.com/
Lyman, G. D. (1930). John Marsh, pioneer; the life story of a trail-blazer on six frontiers. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.
Home – John Marsh Historic Trust. (n.d.). Retrieved October 29, 2016, from http://johnmarshhouse.com/